It’s not that all the best sci-fi movies are rated R, but it is one of those genres that, like horror, thrives when its given permission to get down and dirty. Which makes sense, considering sci-fi is all about ideas, and ideas are at their best when they’re given room to push the boundaries of comfort. While the realm of family-friendly sci-fi has delivered some of the best entertainment of all time, when you take the brakes off, you end up with some of the most vital filmmaking in the history of cinema.
As I testament to how rich this particular subgenre is, this list just kept spilling out in new directions. I’d cement my picks and remember a fantastic film that slipped me by, only to rearrange the list and remember yet another gem. As far as the ranking… I mean, forget it. There are, in my estimation, no less than fifteen of the best films ever made on this list. I tried to consider all angles when lining up the ranking — storytelling, direction, technical invention, impact, influence, the list goes on — but ultimately, it’s going to come down to a bit of personal preference.
A few notes on the films you won’t find below. This list is restricted to live-action films, so there’s no Akira or Ghost in the Shell (but you can check out Dave’s kick-ass list of cyberpunk animated movies here). It’s also restricted to films that are technically R-rated, so Unrated or NR classics like Battle Royale and Upstream Color. I also tried to restrict the choices to films where the sci-fi element has a major bearing on the plot, message, or form of the film so some beautiful films that are only tangentially sci-fi didn’t make the cut.
For the curious, here’s the breakdown of the directors with the most hits on the list: Paul Verhoeven (3), David Cronenberg (2), Ridley Scott (2), John Carpenter (2), Terry Gilliam (2), and George Miller (2). But the biggest winner? Alex Garland, with a grand total of 4 movies between his screenwriting and directorial credits.
Check out the full list below, and be sure to sound off in the comments with your favorites, and like I said, don’t get hung up on the rankings. It’s an impossible task, and this is really just about celebrating one of the best and most fruitful subgenres in cinema. Enjoy!